Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers
Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers
Swing and jump blues group
Regarded as one of the most exciting and talented bands of the swing revival movement, Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers attracted fans who might not otherwise come into contact with jazz-related music. Their accessible and danceable style, coupled with Smith’s sultry vocals and pinup looks, are a large part of the band’s appeal. However, explained musical director/pianist Chris Siebert to Down Beat’s Jonathan Tabak, image is not the most important aspect of the band. “The music is always first,” he said. “That’s why we do this. And compared to a lot of the bands that hit a few years back in the swing scene, the image of this band is fairly minimal. We’re an independent label, so we’re free to make music our way, without worrying about presenting a certain image, for instance of eight young white males dressed in zoot suits. We put out the best music we can, and let it speak for itself. Of course, we enjoy the art involved in creating a beautiful album cover, and we’re fortunate to have a sexy, glamorous singer. But we also feature interesting arrangements and soulful soloists. Jazz and blues can stand on its own without elements of rock or lounge music grafted on top to make it more popular.”
“I agree,” added Smith, “but I also think having a fun image allows us to reach more people, not just jazz fans, even teenagers. We have fans from age 12 to 80, which is unusual.” Nevertheless, Smith, voted by Los Angeles Magazine as one of the sexiest people of 1999, attributes much of the act’s success to its all-star band, consisting of a horn section, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. The lineup of the horn section, specifically, features some of the finest musicians in the business. Allen Smith, a trumpeter, spent his formative years in and around the city of Pittsburgh. During World War II, he played with the United States Navy Band, then relocated to San Francisco, where he worked with the likes of T-Bone Walker, Saunders King, and many other notables. In addition to touring with Johnny Otis beginning in 1947, Smith recorded with Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, and Benny Goodman and performed with some of the most popular entertainers in jazz history, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, and Frank Sinatra.
Fellow trumpeter Bill Ortiz, born and raised in San Francisco, likewise enjoyed a fruitful career. He played and/or recorded with musicians such as Tito Puente, Quincy Jones, Peter Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics Ensemble, Don Cherry, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Otis Clay, T.L.C., Pete Escovedo, Airto and Flora Punim, Boz Scaggs, the Johnny Nocturne Band, and Carlos Santana, lending his talents to Santana’s Grammy-winning 2000 album Supernatural and the smash hit “Smooth.”
Bill Stewart, an alto saxophonist, is a native of Chicago and the son of a respected musician who played alto with many jazz greats in the 1920s through the 1940s. Stewart, too, played with a Navy band during World War II. Afterward, he spent much of his time in Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles working in the music business. Some of his credits include playing with Jay McShann, Lionel Hampton, Nancy Wilson, Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harries, Big Maybelle, Al Hibbler, Little Esther Phillips, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny Otis, Rex Stewart, Jesse Price, Joe Liggins, Jimmy Witherspoon, Jack Wilson, Jimmy Rushing, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Hartman, and Jackie Wilson. In 1999, both Smith and his father, Bill Stewart, Sr., won induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame in Columbus.
Jules Broussard, an alto and tenor saxophonist, was born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana, teaching himself to play in the 1940s by listening to the music of Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, and Earl Bostic. In addition to leading his own band, Broussard has played and/or recorded with Ray Charles, Little Esther Phillips, Johnny Otis, Big Mama Thornton, Earl Grant, John Handy, Santana, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, and Van Morrison.
Tenor saxophonist Hal Stein, born in Weehauken, New Jersey, established himself in the 1940s on the jazz scene in New York, where he apprenticed with Don Byas, Erroll Garner, and Charlie Parker. His recording/performing credits include stints with Georgie Auld, Phil Woods, Sahib Shihab, Al Cohn, Doc Pamus, Tab Smith, Joe Henderson, and other notables. Aside from performing, Stein also teaches jazz at Stanford University.
Members include Jules Broussard, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone; Bill Ortiz, trumpet; Herman Riley, tenor saxophone; Chris Siebert, arranger, piano; Allen Smith, trumpet; Lavay Smith, vocals; Ron Stallings, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone; Hal Stein, tenor saxophone; Bill Stewart, alto saxophone; Robert Stewart, tenor saxophone; Marty Wehner, trombone; Howard Wiley, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone.
Formed in San Francisco, CA, 1989; released debut album One Hour Mama, 1997; released Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing, 2000.
Awards: WAMMIE Award for Best Blues Band, San Francisco Weekly Reader’s Poll, 1991; BAMMIE Award for Best Swing Band, Bay Area Music Magazine Reader’s Poll, 1996; named Best Band in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner Annual Readers’ Poll, 1998.
Addresses: Booking —Diana Alden Lang, phone: (510) 658-3196, fax: (510) 658-3194, email: [email protected] Publicity —Mark Pucci Media, phone: (770) 804-9555, e-mail:[email protected] Website— Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers Official Website: http://www.lavaysmith.com.
Herman Riley, who also plays tenor saxophone, is a native of New Orleans who learned his instrument by listening to and taking instruction from Lee Allen and Plas Johnson. Johnson, incidentally, recommended Riley to Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. While still in high school, Riley turned professional when Allen hired him for recording sessions in New Orleans. He went on to play and/or record with the likes of Jimmy Smith, Sammy Davis, Jr., Kenny Burrell, and Nelson Riddle.
Robert Stewart, a tenor saxophonist as well, was born in Oakland, California. In addition to recording and performing extensively with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Stewart has played with other jazz standouts, including John Fad-dis, James Carter, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, Wessell Anderson, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and Reginald Veal.
Originally from the state of Texas, Ron Stallings, a tenor and baritone saxophonist, spent most of his professional life in San Francisco. During his career, he displayed a mastery of a variety of styles through his work with the Dells, the Temptations, Joe Williams, Louis Bellson, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight, Pete Escovedo, Dr. John, the Machete Ensemble, Otis Rush, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy McCracklin, and Ruth Brown. Aside from playing with Smith, Stallings tours regularly with Huey Lewis and the News and co-leads the Latin jazz ensemble Que Color.
Tenor and alto saxophonist Howard Riley, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, likewise has worked with other great musicians. His résumé includes recordings and/or performances with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Marcus Shelby, Bill Bell, and Bishop Norman Williams.
Trombonist Marty Wehner was born and raised in San Francisco and studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. He went on to perform and/or record with such artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Joe Henderson, John Handy, Phil Woods, Clifford Jordan, Dr. John, Otis Clay, Carla Thomas, Charles Brown, Johnny Adams, and the Mingus Epitaph Orchestra. Besides working in Smith’s band, Wehner also performs with Graham Connah, Mingus Amungus, and Kotoja.
All of this talent surrounds the band’s co-leader and vocalist, Lavay Smith. Her physical appearance is often described as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Page, and her singing style bears resemblance to jazz and blues legends like Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, and Little Esther Phillips. “I’ve always sang—it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” she stated matter-of-factly in an interview with Chad Kincaid for Atomic Online magazine. Born in southern California, Smith began singing and playing guitar in a rock band at the age of 15 while living in the Philippines. After returning to California with her family a few years later, Smith formed her own band and began writing and performing more roots-oriented material. “Then I started listening to Bessie Smith and buying some old jazz in my late teens and that was it,” she continued. “I started doing just early jazz and hooked up with some really great, great young musicians.”
In 1989, Smith and her band—which would soon become known as the Red Hot Skillet Lickers—landed their first gig at a small bar she frequented in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. From there, Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers rapidly amassed a strong following throughout the city, long before the modern “swing scene” had even taken hold. They spent the next several years honing their skills on stage, performing both original songs and classics from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Then, in December of 1997, Smith and the group made their recording debut with One Hour Mama, which earned enthusiastic reviews. In March of 2000, the group released a second album, Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout Miss Thing. It, too, garnered praise for top-notch instrumental solos and Smith’s vulnerable singing and reached the number ten position on the Billboard jazz chart. For this record, the band enlisted the help of arranger David Berger, who has also arranged music for Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Aside from features in prominent publications such as Down Beat and a growing fanbase, Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers won several local awards, including a 1991 WAMMIE Award for Best Blues Band from the San Francisco Weekly Readers’ Poll and a 1996 BAMMIE Award for Best Swing Band in the Bay Area Music Magazine Reader’s Poll. In 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner named the group the year’s best band for their annual readers’ polls.
Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers maintain a busy touring schedule, performing approximately 250 live shows per year throughout the United States and Canada. They have played at several premiere venues and music festivals, including the Lincoln Center, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Santa Barbara Jazz Festival, and Jazz Aspen Snowmass.
One Hour Mama, Fat Note, 1997.
Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout Miss Thing, Fat Note, 2000.
Blues Access, Spring 1997.
Blues Review, April 1998.
Down Beat, November 1997; December 1997; May 1999; August 2000; September 2000.
East Bay Express, November 29, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2000; November 6, 2000.
Washington Post, August 20, 2000.
Atomic Online, http://www.atomicmag.com (January 18, 2000).
Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, http://www.lavaysmith.com (January 18, 2000).
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